Damnation Alley (1977)

To the chagrin of the Italian film industry: we are still alive. And to my chagrin: the Italian post-apocalypse — the single greatest sci-fi film sub-genre to dominate the drive-ins and home video stores of my youth — is over.

Sure, Hollywood offered us their big-budgeted versions of our decimated future with Waterworld (1995), Escape from L.A (1996), 28 Days Later (2002), The Road (2006), I Am Legend (2007), The Book of Eli (2010), World War Z (2013), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2016) — all were honorable, but sometimes misfired, efforts. But it was the lowbrow, low-budgeted indie knock-offs coming out of Eurasia in the 1980s — spearheaded by the Italian film industry’s insatiable quest to rip-off proven American genre flicks — that revved our post-nuke engines (just as B&S Movies’ “Fucked Up Futures” and “Deadly Game Show” weeks prove).

However, prior to the Australians, Italians and Filipinos (we love you, Ciro H. Santiago!) dishing their starchy-apocalypses, there was the “Big Three” by Moses and Ben-Hur himself: Charlton Heston. Chuck’s turn in Planet of the Apes (1968) ignited the post-apocalyptic sci-fi craze within the Hollywood mainstream studio system and led to Heston’s turns in The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973).

Once sour on the low-budget “image” of sci-fi films of the ’50s and ’60s, major studios and A-List actors quickly committed to the apocalypse genre — with Oliver Reed in Z.P.G (1971), Bruce Dern in Silent Running (1972), Yul Brynner in The Ultimate Warrior, Sean Connery in Zardoz, and Jackie Cooper in Chosen Survivors, (all 1974), James Caan in Rollerball (1975), Michael York in Logan’s Run (1976), George Peppard in Damnation Alley (1977), and Richard Harris and Paul Newman in Ravagers and Quintet (both 1979), respectively.

So while the Hollywood apoc-mainstream gave us some pretty incredible movies from 1968 to 1979, only one of those films had a bad ass apocalypse truck piloted by our favorite ‘80s TV bad-asses: Col. John “Hannibal” Smith from The A-Team and Stringfellow Hawke from Airwolf.

Sadly, Damnation Alley isn’t as bad-ass as the ‘80s Italian post-apoc flicks left in its wake. If you want a film with George Peppard going into battle with real life (unconvincing) “giant” scorpions and cockroaches blue screen-composited (pasted) into live action sequences, then this is film is for you. Just make sure the papier mâché scorpion claws don’t bite you in the ass.

Damnation Alley started out promising enough: as a popular 1967 sci-fi novella written by Roger Zelanzy. In light Pierre Boulle’s success with the 1968 Planet of the Apes adaptation of his 1964 novel La planète des singes (aka Monkey Planet), Zelanzy was urged to expand the novella into a 1969 novel to make the story more viable for a movie deal. And he got the deal. And it took eight years to develop. And what made it to the silver screen—under the direction of Jack Smight, who scored consecutive box office hits with the disaster flick Airport 1975 and the war movie Midway (1976) — barely resembled the source material.

Check out this awesome synopsis of the book:

The story opens in a post-apocalyptic Southern California, in a hellish world shattered by nuclear war decades before. Several police states have emerged in place of the former United States. Hurricane-force winds above five hundred feet prevent any sort of air travel from one state to the next, and sudden, violent and unpredictable storms make day-to-day life a mini-hell. Hell Tanner, an imprisoned killer, is offered a full pardon in exchange for taking on a suicide mission — a drive through “Damnation Alley” across a ruined America from Los Angeles to Boston — in one of three Landmaster vehicles attempting to deliver an urgently needed plague vaccine.

Police states? A Snake Plissken-like criminal? Did John Carpenter read this book? So what in the hell happened to that movie?

The first pass at the novel, which mirrored the novel-source material, was penned by Lukas Heller, himself with consecutive screenwriting hits with the war-action films The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). Zelanzy loved Heller’s script.

Then, for whatever reasons . . . as studios do . . . the studio executives made their “notes,” then hired Alan Sharp, who had hits with the Burt Lancaster action-western Ulzana’s Raid (1972) and the Gene Hackman police-mystery Night Moves (1975), to do a rewrite — which expunged all the elements that made Zelanzy’s book a best seller in the first place. Bye-bye, Hell Tanner, you bad-ass. Poof goes the Escape from New York-esque police states. Hello, campy storytelling. Goodbye serious-dark plotting and characters.

Sigh. Will the studios ever learn?

So, while Steven Spielberg battled perpetually-failing mechanical sharks on the set of Jaws, Jack Smight’s proposed “epic” Landmaster-motorcycle battle against full-scale 8-foot scorpions was a disaster. The giant cockroaches fared worse. However, the 12-wheeled, seven-ton Landmaster built by Dean Jeffries (also responsible for the vehicles in the apoc-satire Death Race 2000) at a cost of $350,000 (one was built; “two” appear in the film as result of photo trickery) worked better than expected. So the studio requested more shots of the Landmaster appear in the film — which is not a good sign. (And Allan Arkush being instructed to “blow up more motorcycles” in Deathsport didn’t work out either. And so it goes.)

So, 20th Century Fox labored over the film in post-production for 10 months, trying to “save” the picture by superimposing “radioactive skies,” scorpions and cockroaches. At one point, as this old Starlog article from September 1977 shows, the studio even decided to ditch the book’s unique title and retitled the film with the vanilla . . . Survival Run (which became the title of a 1979 Peter Graves hillbilly-bent The Hills Have Eyes rip-off). Meanwhile, George Lucas was toiling away on his Flash Gordon homage, and released, Star Wars. And the studio believed Damnation Alley would be the “blockbuster” . . . and Star Wars would be the flop.

And we know how that worked out.

The post-production snafus over Damnation Alley became so heated that the studio wrestled control of the film from Jack Smight and re-edited the film a second time — dumping what little plot and character development was left . . . for more of the Landmaster . . . and all that was left of Roger Zelanzy’s book was the Landmaster. At least the studio got the picture they wanted.

So, was it worth it?

This You Tube video shows the Landmaster going through its paces in the film — all seven minutes of it — for your viewing pleasure. Hey, it’s why we love the movie in the first place: Hannibal and Stringfellow driving a post-apocalyptic, amphibious heavy metal scorpion crusher is why we bought our tickets.

Thus, five months after the $20 million-budgeted Star Wars was released on May 25, 1977, the $8 million budgeted — that ballooned to $17 million — Damnation Alley finally saw the light of day on a date no one remembers: October 21, 1977. A critical failure, its box-office stalled at less than $5 million in sales. The film was eventually recut for television and premiered as a high-rated NBC Sunday Night Movie on June 12, 1983, and featured alternate and additional scenes that offered more character and plot development — but that TV cut was lost and never released on video. In fact, George Peppard has gone on record as being unhappy with the 1977 theatrical cut. Zelanzy wanted his name taken off the movie; the studio (for whatever legal snafus) refused.

Oh, so you want to know what the movie is about.

Sorry, this is one of those films where the backstory (like Stallone’s D-Tox and Cobra, for example) is better than the actual movie. Let’s put it this way: Damnation Alley is almost the same as Def Con 4 in plot . . . but even with its shortcomings, Damnation Alley is the far superior film. And for $17 million, it should be.

First Lieutenant Jake Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent, White Line Fever) and Major Eugene “Sam” Denton (George Peppard, Battle Beyond the Stars) are on duty at an Air Force ICBM missile silo in the California desert when the Soviet Union launches a nuclear strike (film clip). Regardless of their retaliatory strike, Tanner and Denton only managed to intercept 40% of the Soviet missiles.

Two years pass. The Earth has titled off its axis, radiation has mutated what life is left, and the planet is wracked by massive aurora borealis-like hurricanes and windstorms. Then, one day, they pick up a radio transmission from Albany, New York. There are survivors! So they hop into their giant, 12-wheeled Landmasters to travel across “Damnation Alley,” with stops along the way in the Omega Man-devastated cities of Salt Lake City, Utah, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Detroit, Michigan—and pick up Jackie Earle Haley (Kelly Leak from the Bad News Bears, Rorschach in Watchmen, and Freddy Krueger in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street) along the way.

You can watch the movie for free on You Tube and enjoy Dean Jeffries’s fascinating discussion on the development and construction of the Landmaster on You Tube. Can you imagine if this film had been a blockbuster? We would have played with a bad-ass Landmaster and giant scorpions with moveable claws chompin’ on our George Peppard and Jan-Michael Vincent action figures. Would our Landmasters have laid waste to the Millennium Falcon and kicked Steve Austin’s one-armed plastic-engine lifting ass? You bet!

As for 20th Century Fox: They fared better with their next venture into the science fiction realm with a script making the office rounds under the title of “Star Beast.” Rushed into production to capitalize on the success of Star Wars, the film became an influential smash that inspired a series of gooey Italian space romps: 1979’s Alien (as B&S Movies’ “Ten Movies that Rip-off Alien” and “A Whole Bunch of Alien Rip-offs All at Once,” investigates; we also blow out a bunch of apocs with our two-part “Atomic Dustbin” feature).

Regardless of its shortcomings, we post-apoc rats love Damnation Alley. How loyal is our love? The members of progressive space rockers Hawkwind wrote a song about the movie! How many movies can make that claim?

Oh, and contrary to popular opinion: The Ark vehicle from Filmation’s Ark II television series that aired on CBS-TV in 1976/1977 was not the repainted and modified Landmaster from Damnation Alley, as this article from Space 1970 clarifies. Is the Ark II as bad-ass as the Landmaster? Oh, hell yeah.

We talk more about the Landmaster, the Ark II and other apoc rides!

Update: Be sure to check out McSmith’s The Books That Time Forgot blog and his review of Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley.

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.

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